The Emperor of Paris, CS Richardson
Doubleday Canada, 276 pages
Once upon a time in the eighth arrondissement, there stood an oddly-shaped building known to all as the cake-slice. Taking the form of a wedge, the cake-slice housed a bakery that, for several generations, provided the citizens of the eighth with their daily bread. The baker, affectionately called The Thinnest Baker in Paris, had a very round wife and a charmingly curious son named Octavio, born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth arrondissement. During the week, they would bake, and on weekends, the Thinnest Baker in Paris would open up the newspaper, look at the pictures, and make up the most wonderful tales for Octavio, for although they both loved stories, neither father nor son could read. One day, a great war took the Thinnest Baker in Paris far, far away, and when he came back, he returned with a spirit smashed into tiny little pieces. The title of the Thinnest Baker in Paris then passed to Octavio, who took his Father to the Louvre on Sundays to gaze at the art and tell mesmerizing stories to anyone who cared to listen.
All manner of men, women, and children populated the eighth arrondissement, and many of them visited the cake-slice: the family of booksellers who formed psychic connections with their books, the artist who slept under the bridge, the couple who climbed their way out of abject poverty to become the last word in Paris fashion, their disfigured daughter who restored masterpieces in the basement of the Louvre and spent her free time losing herself in stories, the gossips, and the blind man who saw all.
Rooted in the realist style with overtones of fable, The Emperor of Paris tells the stories of the inhabitants of the eighth arrondissement throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century. Richardson, in a nod to Flaubert, uses precise language to evoke vivid geographical and emotional landscapes, and the story-within-a-story structure pays homage to Arabian Nights, which itself figures prominently in the novel and ends up bringing Octavio his heart’s desire. Exquisitely crafted, The Emperor of Paris is a captivating tribute to literature, community, and the enduring nature of love.